from ‘Odes – The Architecture of Thought’

This is an extract from the extended essay that forms an introduction to the forthcoming book The Scroll of Lost Songs – a set of Pindaric and Sapphic odes by David Lewiston Sharpe. Some of the information in this section of the essay relies on a number of secondary sources, among them Matthew Santirocco‘s book Unity and Design in Horace’s Odes, and Martin Heidegger’s 1942 lectures on Friedrich Hölderlin’s poem ‘Der Ister’.

“The compilation of poems in books, or sets of scrolls, was not a concept that earlier Greeks would have recognised. Initially, such an exercise seems to have been driven by editorial and scholarly concerns. We find ourselves, in fact, in the halls of the great Library of Alexandria for the beginnings of the book of verse.

Poems were classified by meter, form or purpose – collections to which were added commentaries by the scholars at Alexandria. In one sense, my aim in The Scroll of Lost Songs is to offer a set of poems organised according to their form and metre; but the arrangement becomes imbued automatically with meaning as a result of all the associations which the shape and rhythm of the poems possess. At the back of my mind a quiet question is voiced as to which of the ten halls of learning at Alexandria may have spared a space on its shelves for the double-sided roll of which my ‘book’ would have comprised. (This question assumes my efforts would have been worthy of a place.) Accounts of how the Library was organised seem to suggest that there may have been a room for history, a room for geography, a room for lyric poetry, and so on; a room alone seems to have been set aside for ‘editions’ of, and commentaries on, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. Before such exhaustive assemblages and study, poets just wrote poems – with no thought of putting them together as collections in the way later civilisation conceives of them. But then, books were not books as such in any case. Aristotle’s surviving works show how written scrolls often served effectively as lecture notes: writing that in those days was read aloud.

The first three books of odes by Horace were from a later time, when the concerns of collecting works together by means of taxonomy were giving way to thematic and, broadly speaking, artistic, concerns as guiding principles of construction. By then, the works of Pindar and Sappho had been put together as books and offered themselves as monolithic totems of artistic principle.

After an unsuccessful first performance, Sophocles’ play Antigone was revised by its author in antiquity – but its written revision was never performed, although it is the version which came to be copied and re-copied as it made its way to us across the centuries. The play becomes something dependent on a culture of reading rather than performance – it is impossible to know whether poems in ‘collections’ were ever read out or ‘performed’ from their scrolls. A drama for several actors and chorus existing primarily as a written work invites the idea that its literary worth was prized early on, even while its dramatic status was demoted as a result of a still-born initiation. It is, of course, a play that has rewarded 2,500 years of study – a timeless, vital story that is more than worth performing, in which Antigone defies convention, established by her uncle the tyrant Kreon, to wish for and carry out the burial of her brother after a battle. Kreon has denied him this fundamental honour, and a tragedy takes shape which ends in Antigone’s suicide. Along the way, a sequence of six choral odes offer the usual commentary one expects from a Greek chorus – but they are far from usual examples. These six odes, and one in particular, are among the most important in the history of literature.

The ‘Ode on Man’, as it has become known, comprises the typical sequence of strophes and antistrophes one comes to expect from Greek odes (without epodes in this case). If odes are by their nature intended to vaunt the worth of their object, and as a result hold up a mirror to an aspect of ourselves, then the ‘Ode on Man’ is the great archetype.

Man’s perceived dominion over the world around him is the thread of the poem’s theme – the animal kingdom, the birds of the air, the soil, even the harnessing of the sea-winds are seen to possess powers over which human beings have command. The ode journeys from the ability to seize the world by means of a global grasp, as if the Earth were the tiller of a boat, via the teaching of himself speech and the possessing of thought ‘swift as the winds’ elsewhere controlled (a theme introduced at the half-way point of the poem), to the contemplation of cities in the closing lines. Humanity has become, in total, the votive subject of poetry: an ode par excellence. Heidegger’s preoccupation with the connections that he saw this ode as having with the hymns of Hölderlin is significant; he raises questions in the early part of his lecture series on ‘Der Ister’ concerning what the poet’s writing of ‘hymns’ meant as such. The question can remain unanswered, since the important point is that the genealogy which leads back from poetry of this period to the earliest origin of Western literature shows us a commonality undergoing ceaseless regeneration and re-invention.

Heidegger himself makes much of a word in the first line of Sophocles ‘Ode on Man’, used to define ‘man’; the word is deinon, meaning at once ‘full of wonder and terror’ – one might use the word ‘awe’ to translate it, gathering darker associations to leaven the wonder. In the translation presented by Heidegger of Sophocles’s Antigone ode, the word deinon in Greek is translated as ‘unheimlich’ – literally ‘un-homely’, although this is most conventionally translated in English as ‘uncanny’. Man is identified in these terms as an ‘uncanny’ creature; but Heidegger is concerned with investigating how Hölderlin’s ‘Der Ister’ looks at time and space, ‘locality’ and ‘journeying’, and how rivers enshrine the historicising principle of human experience of existence, in which the (shall we say) transience inherent in the entity of its flow goes some way to show how we can be ‘homeless at home’,[1] as the restless soul of the contemporaneous English poet John Clare was to have characterised his life, and perhaps ours too.

Other odes since Sophocles – Hölderlin’s included – might be seen as mere footnotes, points of clarification and magnification, to this ‘fear-full’ apotheosis of humanity – which is an elevation not without warning.”

[1] John Clare, ‘Journey out of Essex’, Selected Poetry and Prose, ed. M. & R. Williams (London: Methuen, 1986), 183. See also: Hugh Haughton and Adam Phillips, Chapter 1 ‘Introduction: relocating John Clare’, in: Haughton, Phillips, Summerfield (eds), John Clare in Context (Cambridge: CUP, 1994), 1-27.


About davidlewistonsharpe
Composer, poet, harpsichordist and artist.

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